Having had the first look at Gilas Pilipinas when he started the program more than a decade back, Rajko Toroman knows that the team has grown by leaps and bounds after he laid eyes on his former squad a couple of nights ago.
“I think that’s the strongest team in the history of Philippine basketball,” Toroman was quoted by a Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas release sent to media outfits Sunday, a few hours before the Filipinos were to play Mexico in a friendly as Gilas gears up for the Fiba World Cup’s group phase starting Friday.
“They have size, everything, even guys who have international exposure,” Toroman, who came up with the blueprint of the program, said after seeing the team up close in a closed-door tune-up against Ivory Coast.
This batch of Nationals is definitely better than the first group that Toroman handled, which was at that time made up of some of the finest amateurs in the country and a number of Filipino-foreigners called for Philippine team duty.
Jordan Clarkson, the star for Utah in the NBA, banners this group together with six-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo, the 7-foot-3 Kai Sotto and a number of young guns who are playing overseas and doing good jobs at it.
He really saw a team teeming with so much talent.
But being the perfectionist that he is, Toroman—who is friends with Ivory Coast’s Slovenian head coach Dejan Prokic—offered his opinion on what is lacking with the opening ceremonies at mammoth Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan just five days away.
“First game with Jordan Clarkson. They need the time to fix everything, to make the chemistry,” Toroman, who accepted consultancy stints for Letran and St. Benilde in the NCAA and for Converge in the PBA recently, explained.
“But, you know Clarkson can do a lot, you can see that he dominated the play here. Just need to make the chemistry between all the players.”
Despite an 85-62 win over the Ivorians at PhilSports Arena in Pasig Friday, coach Chot Reyes is also looking for that chemistry as the Nationals coughed the ball up 18 times—with Clarkson accounting for four of them simply because his teammates weren’t able to anticipate his tendencies.
“[There are] still some kinks in the offense. We had 18 turnovers and that’s something we have to address,” Reyes had said after that win.
Win two games
“We take solace in the fact that at least we got one game under our belts where we got those three,” referring to the trio of Clarkson, Sotto and Scottie Thompson, who joined the team late in its preparations because of varying reasons.
“As you saw, (Jordan) had a couple of turnovers, but that’s going to improve in the next two games,” Reyes said confidently. “I like the way Scottie moved. You can see that Kai was a big factor. Although he’s still not a hundred percent back from his back problems, he gives us just that much-needed depth in the frontline.”
After the Mexico game, Gilas closes out its three-game schedule of friendlies against Montenegro—the 18th-ranked team in the world—Monday also at 8 p.m.
Reyes made it a point to schedule the games at 8 p.m. to have his players familiarize themselves with the game time in the tournament proper. They play the Dominican Republic and Karl Anthony-Towns at the same time on Friday.
Gilas will be looking to win at least two games to get out of group play and Reyes said in past interviews that the targets are the Dominicans and the Angolans, whom they play Sunday at Smart Araneta Coliseum. The fourth team in the Gilas group is world No. 10 Italy.
History says that the strongest Philippine Team ever assembled was the 1954 version that finished third in this tournament in Brazil.
But Toroman knows what he is talking about — with international basketball being his life — so this Gilas squad could wind up getting the job done in the end.
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